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World/National News

January 20, 2013

South Africa: vets struggle to treat hurt rhinos

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A high-value target survives two attempts on her life. After recovering from multiple gunshot wounds, she is secretly moved to an undisclosed location in hopes that the killers won’t track her down again.

This isn’t a Hollywood thriller about a hunted witness in a police protection program. It is the tale of Phila, one of a growing number of rhinoceroses that survive horrific injuries during attempts by poachers to hack off their horns. With her horns still intact, Phila is a rare survivor of a surge in rhino killings in South Africa, home to most of the world’s rhinos.

In a new push, veterinarians are racing to learn more about rhino anatomy so they can swiftly treat survivors of attacks by poachers whose arsenal includes assault rifles and drug-tipped darts. The obstacles are funding, a dearth of past research and the logistics of helping fearsome-looking behemoths that are easily traumatized if moved from their habitat.

There are “suddenly a lot of live rhinos needing medical attention,” said Dr. Katja Koeppel, senior veterinarian at the Johannesburg Zoo, where Phila spent two years before her surreptitious return to a game reserve in November.

She cautioned that treatments for rhinos are inexact: “We know very little about rhinos. We treat them as a large horse.”

The South African government says a record 668 rhinos were killed in the country in 2012, an increase of nearly 50 percent over the previous year. Demand is growing in Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia where rhino horn is believed to have medical benefits despite evidence to the contrary. The horn is made of keratin, a protein also found in human fingernails.

Veterinarians say there are no reliable statistics for the number of rhinos injured by poachers, partly because some game reserve owners prefer to keep quiet for fear other criminals will flock to any location known to harbor rhino. Those involved in the protection of rhinos are skittish, and suspicion that people are colluding with poachers is plentiful.

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